Michael Shannon is pure evil. Or, at least, he’s very good at pretending to be. Andrew Dickens talks ponytails and violence with the Man Of Steel’s nemesis
Zod stands before me. Or, at least, the closest thing to a real-life version does. It’s not just that Michael Shannon is playing the Kryptonian warmonger in Man Of Steel, but that if he stared at you and said “kneel”, you’d kneel.
The same probably goes for other commands such as “iron my shirts”, too.
It’s hard to imagine any other modern actor playing the role. To call Shannon ‘the face of evil’ is a bit harsh – he’s actually a very nice man – but witness those eyes and that frown in person, couple in with the fact that he doesn’t seem to like smiling, and you can see why he was the first choice for Superman’s severely-irked nemesis.
And it’s not his first ‘less joyful’ role. From tortured FBI agent Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, to a drug addict in Machine Gun Preacher, paranoid survivalist in Take Shelter and nutcase (that’s the technical psychiatric term) in Revolutionary Road – for which he was Oscar nominated – he’s mastered acting’s dark arts.
And now he’s adding not one but two devilishly serious entries to his CV in the space of a week. Alongside Zod, he also plays real-life Mob hitman and mass-murderer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. It’s almost as if he enjoys being bad…
Zod is an iconic character thanks to Terence Stamp. Did you try to ignore what had been done before?
Yeah, I didn’t watch Superman 2 again. I saw it when I was a kid and it’s definitely ingrained in my memory, but I didn’t use it as source material. This film’s makers agreed that they wanted Zod to be more relatable – maybe even more empathetic – than the previous incarnation. What Terence Stamp did with the character was incredible, but there was nothing reasonable about that version of General Zod, he was purely a villain. They wanted to make him more complicated than that.
The film starts on Krypton with you and Russell Crowe, who plays Jor-El – Superman’s dad. What was it like starring with him?
I remember the first day I met him, I was nervous. He came in to do training. Wow, this is the guy, he’s a gladiator. He is a powerful man, and he walked up, shook my hand and was like, “I really liked you in Revolutionary Road.” From then on I was comfortable around him, and he was actually very nice. We went out for dinner a few times and we’d tell each other stories. We had some nice times. People assume that he’s – I don’t know – a little rough around the edges? But I thought he was very pleasant.
Did you have to build up any animosity towards Henry Cavill?
It’s hard to get mad at Henry. I had a lot of admiration for him, because I’d seen him at the training centre being tortured. I think he really enjoys it. I think. But one of the interesting things about the film is that my version of General Zod doesn’t simply hate Superman, it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think he hates Superman at all – they just want different things. There is a threshold on how interesting it is to watch people hate each other. If you want to do that, just turn on CNN.
Did you feel for him being British and having to play this all-American role? People can be quite protective over their cultural icons.
When we were shooting the movie it never really came up. The person who plays Superman can’t be Brad Pitt, they can’t be a household name, because otherwise you never look at them and think, “Oh that’s Superman.” It’s easier with Batman and Spider-Man because they have masks over their faces.
Technically, Superman isn’t from the US anyway.
Yeah, that’s true. And he doesn’t just protect America either. It’s not like he’s protecting America from Russia – he’s protecting the world he’s in. He’s a global commodity.
I asked Henry if you walked around getting people to kneel before Zod and he said you didn’t. Surely the temptation must have been there?
Because that line isn’t in the film?
Yeah. That line, “Kneel before Zod”, is all about him wanting to assert his dominance, and that just wasn’t the version [of the character] I was doing. The version I was doing was that Zod had a huge fricking problem that he needs to sort out. He doesn’t get off on feeling powerful.
You’re also playing serial killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. As an actor, is it good to be evil?
It’s not what draws me to the material. I mean, I can see why you would draw a comparison between the two, but General Zod is not by his nature a destructive person. For most of his career, he’s been trying to protect Krypton. He’s not a malevolent person really, he’s just in a stressful position. In terms of The Iceman, the thing I found most interesting about Kuklinski was not the fact that he killed people, but that he had a family that he genuinely seemed to love and wanted to care for. If he was just some guy that lived in a studio apartment, ate potato chips, drank beer and ran around shooting people once in a while, then I wouldn’t have done the movie.
What research did you undertake to play Kuklinski?
I was led to believe that his family didn’t want to be a part of the process. There are a couple of books about him, so I started reading one, and my director said, “Oh, that one is full of sh*t.” So what do I do? He’s a real person and I’m about to play him in a movie, I’ve been told I can’t talk to his family and that the book I’ve been reading is inaccurate. There were interviews he had done for HBO and I received an unedited version, which was quite long and filled with evasion and, frankly, some silliness. But that was my main resource.
When they asked him in the interview, “How many people have you killed?” he didn’t have a number, and it didn’t seem important to him. He estimated between 100 and 200, but wasn’t sure. What do you do with that information? Sorry, I’m going on and on, but biopics are not inherently interesting to me. Showing somebody’s life story in an hour and a half – that is ridiculous. I would never say to anybody, “If you are going to see The Iceman you will know Richard Kuklinski.” That’s preposterous.
Did you think there was a danger of making him too likable?
I’ve heard that, and the film, out of necessity, simplifies some of the family relationships. I mean, I’m sure he wasn’t a saint at home all the time, I’m sure he yelled and broke stuff, and he probably even hit his wife from time to time. And that behaviour is abhorrent to me, I’m not endorsing that, but we have an hour and a half. We could make a 20-hour movie where we go into all of the nooks and crannies, but nobody would f*cking see it.
After playing a character like that, is it weird to then go back to friends and family?
No, there’s no lingering impact really. We made this film very quickly. I was away from my home, my family, the days were very long and at the end of the day I was mostly just hungry. I’d have dinner and pass out. I’ve never really had that problem – I don’t drive off the set and go to the shooting range. I’m glad to be done.
On a lighter note, David Schwimmer’s in it sporting a shellsuit, ponytail and moustache. Was it hard not to laugh?
I liked the gap in his moustache, that was cool. I’ve known David for a long time and I did a play with him in Chicago. He has a wonderful theatre company there called Looking Glass and we did a stage adaptation of The Idiot by Dostoevsky.
Do you think it is hard for him to shake off the Friends thing?
It’s like getting a tattoo on your face. I don’t think that will ever go away. That show is always playing, but he never complains about it, which I think is wise. It was funny seeing him made up like that, but he took it seriously, he really wanted to be involved. He even went out and got contact lenses to make his eyes the right colour.
In The Iceman you also face off against a pretty terrifying Ray Liotta character. Who was scarier, him or Russell Crowe?
Well, Ray has always scared the crap out of me, ever since [Eighties action comedy] Something Wild. I remember watching that and thinking, “That is the scariest human being I’ve ever seen in my life.” Ray likes to keep people on their toes, so you never really know what he’s going to do from take to take. He’s not an ass about it, he’s not slapping you or anything, but he’s an electric presence. It’s like he’s got electricity inside him or something. Russell has a lot more of an earthy feel; he is a rock.
You’re well known as it is, and it’s only going to get bigger with Man Of Steel. Are more people coming up to you in the street?
When you’re on a TV show, that sets a new level of recognition, so mostly I’m recognised for Boardwalk Empire. And now this. I need to get some disguises, I don’t want to drive around town – I like to walk and take the subway.
You could always borrow David Schwimmer’s ponytail.
And his contact lenses.
Man Of Steel is at cinemas nationwide from 14 June; The Iceman is at cinemas nationwide from 7 June